Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Fort Willingham

Fort Willingham was built in Florence in 1937. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s possibly because the military facility was almost universally referred to as the “National Guard Armory” or simply the “Armory.” Located on a large block situated between Royal Avenue and Tennessee, Mobile, and Oak Streets, it was originally home to the 101st Engineers, or light ponton company, as it was then called. “Ponton” is the French word from which the English “pontoon” is derived.

It was headed by Capt. W. H. Cromwell who had petitioned the Alabama governor for funding to establish a guard unit in Florence. Begun in 1935 as a WPA project, the armory was completed two years later. The Florence unit consisted of three officers and 132 enlisted men with an additional 170 local men applying for membership as war in Europe threatened. Fort Willingham’s total payroll was $20,000.00 annually, and it initially contained as much as $200,000.00 in armaments and equipment. The 101st Company stood ready to be activated in time of national emergency. Divided into three groups, each patrol could erect a ponton bridge in one hour’s time.

After Germany declared war in Europe, the scope of the Alabama National Guard began to evolve, and the 115th Signal Battalion was organized in Florence on December 1, 1940. After the end of WWII, Maj. L. A. Bonifay commanded Fort Willingham for several years as its mission changed to meet the needs of a cold war military climate. An addition more than doubled the square footage of the armory and was celebrated in January 1958 by an open house attended by Gov. James Folsom.


From the historical marker on the former site of Fort Willingham: Originally the 2nd Battalion, 151st Engineers, it was organized a number of times from 1940 to 1959 as its mission was changed to meet the Nation's military requirements. In World War II it was designated as an Engineer Combat Regiment (later Battalion). During the Korean War it was on active duty as the 104th Anti-aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion.

As the United States continued to upgrade its military facilities, so did the Alabama National Guard. In the late 1970s, a new armory was built on Helton Drive, and Fort Willingham was razed. The area lay relatively unattended until the Oak Park Garden Club took over landscaping for the large tract now also bordered by Florence Boulevard, a major gateway to the city.

Realizing the land where Fort Willingham once stood was underutilized, the City of Florence proposed to locate a park on the tract. In May 2012, Memorial Grove Park was officially dedicated at a ceremony centered around a monument to fallen Florence Police officers. The park is still in its infancy, and more memorials are planned. 

Bette Favor Terry holds a B.A. in history from UAH. 

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